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Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2001 / 19 kislev, 5762

John H. Fund

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Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot -- AVERAGE voters usually don't know who the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees are. They are primarily party fund-raisers and are usually only visible when paired with their counterparts on TV. But the kind of person each party selects as its head says a lot about what direction it's going.

When Democrats selected Terry McAuliffe, the high-flying top fund-raiser for the Clinton-Gore campaign, as their new chairman last year, it signaled that Democrats planned to continue with the Clinton playbook: run moderate-sounding candidates; raise money from fat cats while demonizing the GOP as a rich man's party; keep the party's base of minority voters agitated over various grievances.

So far, Mr. McAuliffe's DNC strategy has worked out pretty well. Last month Democrats won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and on Saturday they narrowly re-elected Houston's Mayor Lee Brown after he waged a nasty, racially charged campaign against his GOP challenger, Orlando Sanchez. For the GOP, the Virginia loss was particularly cutting because it came in the state where the RNC chairman, Jim Gilmore, is governor. (Mr. Gilmore himself didn't lose the election; term limits kept him off the ballot.) It was the first statewide loss the GOP had suffered since then-Sen. Chuck Robb beat Oliver North in 1994.

The DNC's success this year explains in large part why Mr. Gilmore is resigning as chairman of RNC halfway through a two-year term. Mr. Gilmore said he simply wanted to spend more time with his family, but as political analyst Stu Rothenberg summarized: "He got the boot, let's face it." According to his supporters, Mr. Gilmore was called into the White House last week and told that while he could continue as the party's spokesman, he would have no voice in setting party policy. He decided to quit.

The RNC was riven with internal conflict during Mr. Gilmore's tenure--to the point that he refused to allow Jack Oliver, the day-to-day party manager, to convene staff meetings in his absence. Mr. Gilmore's departure means that the White House political office, run by senior adviser Karl Rove, has no intention of allowing the RNC to drift the way it did during the 1991-92 recession. That ended up contributing to the re-election defeat of the first President George Bush.

The leading candidate to replace Mr. Gilmore is Marc Racicot, a former Montana governor. Mr. Racicot is moderate on fiscal issues but acceptable to social conservatives because he's pro-life and generally praised by all for his smooth TV skills.

Mr. Gilmore leaves the party in good financial shape, with $26 million on hand vs. only $2 million for the Democrats. But Mr. Gilmore's critics say that just shows Mr. McAuliffe was smart to spend all he had in this year's elections, knowing that success always helps in raising more money.

Last month's elections were a wake-up call for the White House. The Democrats are effectively backing the president in his war effort while undermining him on domestic policy. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, has ordered attack ads to run against three GOP congressmen that tie them to what she calls "Bush's recession." Ms. Lowey has gone so far as to call Mr. Bush's stimulus plan "unpatriotic."

The basis for the Democrats' boldness in time of war is explained by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman: "Bush would like this to be Osama bin Laden's economy, but the reality is it's Bush's economy. I don't think Democrats feel any particular compulsion to bail him out if he's not going to do what Democrats think need to be done to help working people." In Congress that strategy has resulted in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle bottling up or diluting most of the Bush domestic agenda.

Aware of the political danger of doing nothing, the White House has decided it's time to overhaul the RNC and make it a more effective political fighting machine. But to do that the White House also must reconsider its current strategy of downplaying all differences with Mr. Daschle & Co. in a quest to retain "bipartisan" support for the war.

Nothing is as important as the war, but the Democrats know this too. And if President Bush also doesn't seize control of his domestic agenda and aggressively promote it, he will be repeating, in part, a key mistake of his father who ceded the domestic policy debate to Democrats after the 1991 Gulf War. It's true that the American people want their leaders in Washington to get along, but as the recession gets worse that will be overridden by a refusal to accept any presidential excuses about why his agenda hasn't passed Congress.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund